Port Hobron, Sitkalidak Island

Port Hobron, Sitkalidak Island

by | Apr 21, 2022

Port Hobron is an abandoned shore whaling station on the south shore of a fjord with the same name situated on the north coast of Sitkalidak Island, about 6 miles (10 km) southeast of Old Harbor and 48 miles (77 km) south-southwest of Kodiak, Alaska. Port Hobron extends southwest for about 7 miles (11 km) from Sitkalidak Strait to the head of the fjord at McCord Bay and provides easy access to the deep waters off eastern Kodiak and the migration path of Pacific Ocean great whales. The name was apparently given in 1888 by Ivan Petrof who was the manager of a salmon saltery established here by the Alaska Coast Fishery Company. Late Pleistocene glaciations carved the fjord out of the Ghost Rocks Formation of the Chugach terrane. The Kodiak Archipelago represents an emergent portion of this accretionary complex exposing belts of rocks formed in deep ocean trenches. The Ghost Rocks Formation is exposed as a 99 miles (160 km) long by 9 miles (15 km) wide belt on the southeast portion of the islands including the central portion of Sitkalidak Island. The Ghost Rocks are in fault contact with the Kodiak Formation to the northwest and the Sitkalidak Formation to the southeast. The Ghost Rocks Formation consists of a sequence of turbidites interbedded with volcanic flows. The turbidites primarily consist of alternating beds of sandstone and argillite. It is generally accepted by most researchers that the Ghost Rocks Formation formed as a result of the passage of a trench-ridge-trench triple junction through a trench slope or slope basin during PaleoceneEocene time. The age of the Ghost Rocks Formation has been constrained by planktonic foraminifera fossils that occur locally in limestones giving a maximum age of deposition. Minimum ages of the formation are given by isotopic age dates from the intrusive plutons. These dates constrain the age of the Ghost Rocks Formation to be between about 70 to 60 million years ago. During the Last Glacial Maximum, the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island were covered by a massive glacier complex fed by precipitation from the Gulf of Alaska. The glacier flowed to the outer edge of the continental shelf where it calved icebergs into the open Pacific Ocean. The Kodiak Island ice cap expanded to a late-glacial maximum about 13,400 years ago, retreated an unknown distance, and then expanded to a slightly less extensive position at 11,900 years ago. By 10,000 years ago. the Kodiak ice cap had undergone final collapse and the inner fjords of the island were ice-free.

The first humans to establish settlements on Kodiak Island probably arrived from the Alaska Peninsula about 7500 years ago. An archaeological site on the outer coast of Sitkalidak Island at Ocean Bay, which is connected to Port Hobron by an ancient portage trail, represents one of the earliest cultures to inhabit the area. The Ocean Bay people were succeeded by the Kachemak tradition, a culture that appears to have developed from the Ocean Bay about 3500 years ago. In turn, the Kachemak tradition underwent major changes about 1000 years ago, probably influenced by people external to Kodiak, leading to the development of the Koniag tradition or ancestral Alutiiq people. The economy was based on harvesting marine mammals for skins used to make clothing, bags, and boat cov­ers, as well as for food and fuel for oil lamps. There were several major components to the mar­itime harvest based on the abundance of remains recovered from archaeological middens. These included marine mammals, nearshore fishes such as halibut and cod, all species of Pacific salmon, seabirds and their eggs, shellfish, and seaweed. During much of prehistory, the most com­monly hunted sea mammals were porpoises, sea otters, and sea lions. Whalebones have been found associated with all historical and prehistorical cultures but it isn’t clear if the prehistorical cultures hunted whales or simply salvaged dead or stranded whales. Historically, Alutiiq whalers went out in single hatch kayaks and targeted smaller, humpback and fin whales. Slate whaling lances were smeared with monkshood, a local flower that contains the poison aconite, and human fat. The fat acted as a bonding agent. Aiming at the fins or tail, once the whaler had lodged the lance in the whale, it took several days for the poison to paralyze the targeted region. Around three days later, the whale died and eventually washed ashore. Whales were not a source of profit for the Russian-American Company, but they were a crucial resource on Kodiak Island. Boiled and pickled whale meat and oil were important food items for the Russians as well as the Alutiiq. Alutiiq whalers at Kodiak killed between 150-300 whales a year and a portion of each whale killed was provided for colonial use. In 1835, Yankee whalers from Nantucket discovered the rich whaling grounds that stretched across the Gulf of Alaska. New England whaling vessels soon crowded the waters around Kodiak and when the whaling boom peaked over 60% of the whale oil brought to east coast ports came from Kodiak waters. By the 1850s, it became harder to find whales and the over-harvested Kodiak hunting grounds were no longer profitable.

In 1888, the Alaska Coast Fishery Company built a salmon saltery on the south shore and near the head of Port Hobron. A crew of 18 men harvested the salmon from a lake on the portage route to Ocean Bay and trans­ported the fish by horse railway to the head of Port Hobron where they were transferred to barges or dories and delivered to the curing house. In 1890, this facility was sold and moved to another location. In the early 20th century there was a resurgence of whaling in the Gulf of Alaska with less than a dozen shore whaling stations operating along the coast from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Akutan Island in Alaska. In 1926, the American Pacific Whaling Company established a modern land-based whaling station at the mouth of Fugitive Creek in Port Hobron. Whaling operations took place predominantly off the southeastern shores of Kodiak and Afognak Islands, with no evidence of whaling in the Shelikof Strait. There were three principal whaling vessels operating out of the Port Hobron station including Moran, Aberdeen, and Tanginak. Each had a large, bomb-loaded harpoon mounted to its bow. Once a whale was killed, it was pumped full of air and marked with a flag so that the crew was able to continue hunting for the rest of the day. Whales had to be processed within about 24 hours in order to ensure a high grade of oil. This time constraint restricted whaling activity to a radius of approximately 150 miles (241 km) from the station. Once at the station, whales were moved onto flensing platforms with steam winches for processing. The Alaska Steamship Company made weekly stops at Port Hobron to drop off supplies and pick up oil, and tourists and other passengers got to witness shore whaling firsthand. Port Hobron operated every year from 1926 until 1937, with the exception of 1931. During its eleven years of operation, the station processed more than 2,300 whales. It was decommissioned in 1937 due to financial difficulties, decreased number of whale stocks, and increasingly strict whale protections. Today all that remains of the whaling station is the derelict hull of the wooden vessel Northern, rusting tanks, and wharf piles. See a short video about shore whaling at Port Hobron here and general shore whaling in the early 1900s here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Port Hobron here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

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